Episode #73 – Kirk Wants to Buy an Amplifier

By Kirk on October 6, 2017

Andy Doe helps Kirk and Doug understand “make louder boxes.”

This week’s guest:

“You are experiencing audio ennui.”

Show notes:

One note about the musical Girl From the North Country. Between the recording and release of this podcast, the show will transfer to the Noel Coward Theatre in London for 12 weeks, from December 29. See it if you can.

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  • Excellent advice from Andy Doe. While Stereophile publishes worthwhile record reviews and interesting industry updates, their equipment reviews are chock full of meaningless audio babble. You’ll never find the authors of these reviews, or those who fall for such nonsense, willing to participate in double blind listening tests because in doing so they would reveal that they are unable to distinguish between one well designed amp with reasonable specs and another well designed amp of similar power and specs.

    Spending more money on an amp/receiver with more inputs, features, and power, (up to a certain point), makes sense if those additional inputs and features (such as AirPlay) would be useful to you. A robust power supply is quite useful if you play your music quite loudly, as it will provide for more dynamic range. But it’s important to remember that power is logarithmic, so to double the perceived loudness of a 60 watt amp, (which should be fine in most instances), you would need ten times the power, in this case an unrealistic 600 watts.

    Kirk mentioned two stereo speaker outputs as a desirable feature, and this is an area where an inexpensive amp may have its speaker outputs wired in series, which can have a noticeably detrimental effect on sound quality if you are listening to both pairs of speakers at the same time. If you plan on playing two pairs of stereo speakers simultaneously, look for an amp/receiver with the A and B speaker outputs wired in parallel. To determine if this is the case, hook up a pair of speakers to the Speaker pair A output, with nothing hooked up to Speaker pair B, and make the selection(s) on the amp for the Speaker pair B output to play at the same time as Speaker pair A. If the sound is muted when doing so then the speaker outputs are wired in series and the amp should be avoided for serious listening of two pairs of speakers at the same time.

    Build quality and design aesthetics (like VU meters!) are certainly worth paying for if they matter to you. And it is true that if someone is the owner of an outrageously expensive amp (that in reality sounds no better than a moderately priced amp), the purchaser may experience a sense of psychic gratification, feeling that their amp just has to sound better than those which are less expensive (because Stereophile says so) when in fact there is absolutely no empirical evidence or double blind listening test to support that conclusion.

  • At an online store like musicdirect, you can get a quality integrated amp for a few hundred dollars. In the UK, try NAD or Musical Fidelity – they make some affordable stuff.
    Class D amps tend to be very affordable.

  • I’m an ex-Stereophile reviewer, who made his share of mistakes. But one I never made was trusting double-blind testing — which has nothing to do with legitimate science.
    Amplifiers do sound different — but not as nearly as different as people would have you believe. Amplifiers can have impeccable specs but sound horrible (eg, Crown’s K-series switching amps). Similarly, modestly priced amplification can have exceptional sound (NAD, for example).
    Basically, you have to listen for an extended period (hours, not minutes) to familiar material, in as relaxed a mood as possible.
    As the risk of permanently alienating you, Andy, you never knew J Gordon Holt, one of the most-rational and sensible people I’ve ever known. He had the sort of patience I lack that enabled him to draw defensible conclusions. He also had lots of live recordings (do you, Andy?) that could be used as a near-absolute reference.
    But Andy’s categorical rejection of the belief that amplifiers show no audible differences other than those related to things we already know how to measure makes little sense. No one has ever wanted to spend the huge amount of time and money needed to obtain a rational correlation between what is (or isn’t) audible, and whether it’s measurable.
    Final thought — and note that I’m a good friend of John Curl. The Parasound A21 amplifier is currently considered one of the best amplifiers available. It puts out 400 W/ch into a 4-ohm load. It currently sells for $2500. If you think that’s a ripoff…

    • The Parasound A21 is an excellent value choice indeed. Alas, it is outside of Kirk’s budget, which is below $1000. I are recommending the new 2017 Rega Brio integrated, which is class a/b and loaded with high quality parts for 600 GBP.

  • There is a better description for an amplifier than a “make louder box.” I would describe it as a “loudspeaker control box.” In my experience, nearly every power amplifier sounds different from another. Sometimes the perceived differences are comparable to the perceived differences between the tastes of fine wines. At other times, the differences are comparable to the those between artisan mineral waters. But the differences are always there. And consumer grade, mass-market amplifiers always sound disappointing to me.

    I think that many non-measurable factors are at work. But I totally get why Andy and Kirk want to identify measurable differences. The presentation would have benefited from a discussion of “damping factor,” a measurable amplifier characteristic. It describes the ability of the amplifier effectively to control the bass driver cones of the loudspeaker. Better bass sounds and “transients” are characteristic of better amplifiers. Another measurable is “slew rate,” which measures an amp’s ability to quickly change voltages. High slew rates are characteristic of high-end amplifiers, and are one reason why they are sometimes described as sounding “fast.” (It isn’t that the music is sped up, it is just that the music is more highly defined because the amplifier will process its changing voltages more efficiently.) You wanted measurables, I give you measurables…

    • I’m withdrawing from this discussion for an indefinite period. Neither “side” is correct, because its views are based on what its members would like to believe, rather than going to the trouble (and great expense) of performing experiments that would definitively demonstrate what is and what is not true. Such experiments would not include double-blind testing, which is not part of scientific testing. There are better and more-useful forms of control.

  • Andy made me bust out laughing at least three times during this episode. Doug finally articulated a thought I kept having, which is that something (not just make-louder boxes) that costs ten times as much isn’t ten times as good. Deal-a-day site Meh had a write-up about this very subject: https://meh.com/deals/10-5-2017

    Personally, I’m contemplating new speakers. I have some Ariel speakers (http://nutshellhifi.com/Arieltxt1.html#top) I built almost 20 years ago but I’m getting that “I can have better” itch. I’m thinking about Emotiva Airmotive T2s (https://emotiva.com/product/airmotiv-t2/). They have a 30-day trial, which is nice. And I think that being a direct-to-consumer manufacturer can help with the value/cost ratio. But I dread having to ship them back.

  • I’m familiar with Doug through his iTunes scripts and that’s how I stumbled upon your podcast. Liking your show a lot and exploring some back issues. Having spent a good chunk of my life in New Orleans and being exposed to that music idiom, I tend to correct folks when they get things wrong about the music from there- especially pronunciations. I’m not anal about it but I do like your show and appreciate all that Doug has done with his script and feel it’s my duty to help him out with two pronunciations. Dr. John’s album “Gris-Gris” is pronounced Gree-Gree and is a voodoo charm. You can add some good gris-gris or bad gris-gris into a situation. Allen Toussaint pronounced his name Too-Sahn, with the “t” on the end silent and the “n” swallowed (it is French, after all). Think of Doug Sahm but with an “n’. There’s a treasure trove of music in New Orleans. Maybe you could do a show just on that!

    • I totally agree, in part because I lived in France for half my life. This said, most people pronounce those names and words the way he did, so I think it’s not entirely wrong.

  • Though I am but a stupid, ignorant EE, I know how to pronounce “gris-gris” and that guy’s name. The fact that they’re commonly mispronounced is no justification for the error. (How can anyone not know that the final consonants of French words are often softened or dropped?) As my name is often mangled, I try to get other people’s names right.

  • I could only make it through to about halfway. Listening to Doe drone on about quality music reproduction — for which he’s not qualified, despite his resumé on the business side of music — is not a good use of my time. Forgive me if what I wrote below was somehow contradicted by the 2nd half of the podcast (and also therefore, the first part of the podcast.)

    The Stereophile recommended “List” has always been several lists, categorized by product type, then classified into broad categories based on overall sound quality. Within each class, they are listed alphabetically. They even have a class “K” which lists things they feel worth checking out sans formal reviews, no price listed. If something lands in class A that costs $4,000, that means the magazine takes is just as seriously as one costing $40,000. I have yet to read any car magazine that would ever do something like that.

    See where this is going? “Right up your alley,” is where! They recommend integrated amps as low as $500, not starting at $13K as stated. You saw the first one in the category and misinterpreted what that represented.

    I’ve read the magazine, on and off, for many years. They always recommend auditioning gear yourself, not buying based on price. Sometimes that’s done at home, sometimes you can’t. Each time they publish the List, there’s a preamble that clearly explains ALL of this.

    Doe could not correct you on any of this, because he also could not be bothered to read any of it. Do you have any idea how damaging this continued behavior is for The Next Track?

    If you wonder if another amp might be better, audition one. No mystery there! But if “better sound” is the goal behind that, many people would probably agree with me when I say that at the less expensive area of the swimming pool, a new set of speakers might be a wiser first choice. And I say this as someone who understands that the source is King -> it’s hard to get better sound from weak sources. If a new set of speakers isn’t driven as well as they could be by your existing amp, then the path becomes obviously clearer, yeah? You either stay on the carousel or jump off, but nothing about that is the carousel’s “fault,” any more than it is for the people wishing to remain on it.

    Diminishing returns does not equal no returns. No one who buys a Bentley thinks it’s a zillion times better than a Camry, and yet both exist and you aren’t perplexed by the Bentley’s existence.

    Upgrading can be haphazard, and a waste of money, but that’s not the fault of the any product being plugged into the wall. Have a plan and understand it first.

    • As we discussed, it’s not as simple as “audition one.” The room you listen in a store will sound very different from your own listening room, and won’t have the same speakers, for example, making any such audition essentially useless.

      On the Stereophile list, there only three sub-$1000 amplifiers. They are all relatively limited in their own ways.

    • If an amplifier were truly neutral, it would be a one-time purchase. (Such amplifiers might exist, but I don’t know of any.) Unfortunately, all amplifiers either add to or subtract from the signals fed into them. We eventually become aware of these alterations, and the search for a new amplifier is on.

      Some listeners want a particular “sound” that provides a musical presentation they think is ideal for the kind of music they listen to. Unfortunately, such a “sound” is not only inaccurate, but perverse — it keeps us from hearing what the performer intended. Mst listeners have no interest in acoustic music (music that has a “verifiable” sound), so we are flooded with ever-more-expensive products promising higher and higher levels of “musicality” — you get the idea.